How much more calamity can East Africa take? Already struggling with the twin crises of the coronavirus pandemic and a biblical scourge of locusts, the region is now being lashed by exceptionally heavy rainfall, causing floods that threaten life and livelihood from Ethiopia to Tanzania and all parts in between.

For the continent’s most economically vibrant region, the trifecta of tribulations may well add up to a fourth: food scarcity. This ghost from East Africa’s past could hardly have picked a worse moment to return. The world is distracted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and traditional sources of succor — the United States and Europe — face their own economic distress. China, the region’s economic partner of choice in recent years, has not yet demonstrated the ability (or indeed the desire) to fill the vacuum.

Even before the floods, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was warning of “an unprecedented threat to food security” in East Africa. Blame the emergence of huge new locust swarms. The Climate Prediction and Application Center in Nairobi says locusts are “invading the Eastern Africa region in exceptionally large swarms like never seen before.”

The swarms are a product of climate change: Unusually wet weather over the past 18 months created perfect breeding conditions. The war in Yemen may also have played a role, by constraining the ability of local authorities to control the first swarms before they crossed over into the Horn of Africa.

The voraciousness of the locusts has hit East African farmers hardest. According to Gro Intelligence, a privately funded commodity data and analysis service, the insects have damaged more than 25 million hectares of farmland in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.

Worse is to come. The current wet conditions may swell new swarms in the summer, just as harvest season begins.

Fighting locust swarms requires pesticides, and an army of people to spray them. But the coronavirus pandemic is hampering the effort. It is delaying the delivery of pesticides and equipment, and jacking up shipping costs. Governments need to protect their populations from the virus, and travel restrictions designed to impede its spread are constraining efforts against the swarms.

But the danger to food security is so great, countries may feel they do not have the luxury of choosing between scourges. Uganda, for instance, is asking its farmers to go ahead with crop planting even though it is struggling to get them face masks — and despite the risk that locusts will ruin much of the harvest anyway.

The FAO is calling for $153 million to assist East African countries, along with Sudan and Yemen, in fighting the swarms; so far, more than two-thirds of that sum has been pledged or received. But combating the food shortages, now exacerbated by the floods, will require much larger sums. And still more will be needed to put East African economies, until recently the envy of the continent, on life support as the world recovers from the pandemic.

Where will the money come from? East African countries will compete with their African neighbors — and the wider developing world — for emergency funds from multilateral lenders like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and eventually for bigger bailouts.

There will also be competition among African nations for the rescheduling, or outright forgiveness, of payments owed to China, the continent’s largest creditor. Beijing has agreed to join other Group of 20 members in a $20 billion debt moratorium for some poor nations but is not committing itself to more. Some African governments say China is demanding strategic state assets in return for easing or erasing debt. Other lenders worry that any consideration they give African debtors will, in effect, benefit Chinese lenders.

Neither man nor nature, it seems, is inclined to give East Africa a break.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.


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